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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Chabrol (5)

Saturday
Jul182015

La Cérémonie

We will leave an explanation of this film's title to the curious who believe that the Internet could not possibly lie to them. Its translation may indeed shed some light on the plot – that is, if you like your plots brightly lit – yet the English novel on which the film is based is called A Judgement in Stone. And while most movie versions employ a literal translation of the French, German has chosen "Beasts," and Italian, "The Darkness in the Mind." What kind of film could possibly inspire such diverse nomenclature? One most certainly of beasts and judgements, although these labels hang loosely to more than a few objects. And the country home that serves as the centerpiece of our action has more than a few objects to go around. 

Our protagonist is a morose, tomboyish, yet attractive housekeeper with a name out of a socialist realist novel, Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire). When we first see her, she is somewhat late to an appointment with the debonair and rather stunning Catherine Lelièvre (an equally stunning Jacqueline Bisset) at a café that admittedly makes Catherine nervous. Why should a woman of the world, a former model (we are informed later by a dubious source), and a member of the upper crust of society, feel ill at ease in a mediocre little bistro, the likes of which litter France as pigeons occupy Rome? Better to let the events speak for themselves. Catherine warns Sophie – although the warning is like much of Catherine's persona, wholly disingenuous – that the house is remote. "Is that a problem?" she asks, also not caring whether it is. "I don't know," replies Sophie, an answer that startles Catherine. Throughout the film Sophie will recur to this slogan of her ignorance, and on numerous occasions Catherine will be startled either because Sophie should obviously know or because her indifference to that knowledge comes off as terrifying. Catherine's clear, lightly-accented French hints at a privileged life spend abroad in foreign tongues, perhaps indeed very privileged. Alas, she has had little success with domestics of late (such is the curse of the wealthy unable to procure the perfect assistant) and Sophie was laid off after her employer's husband died suddenly. "She's moving to Australia to be with her son," she tells Catherine, who couldn't care less what happens to the former employer provided the reference is solid. Sophie presents her letter of recommendation, but does so in a manner that will strike the careful viewer as unusual. We cannot see Catherine's face at that very moment, so it is impossible to detect whether the same sensation creeps over her features, but the way Sophie points to the name and address on the top of the letter makes us uncomfortable. The two ladies hit it off as much as they can given that they are negotiating the blandest of business deals, Sophie agitatedly mentions her previous salary, Catherine catches on and hikes it by ten percent, and all of a sudden there is nothing more to talk about. For her first day of work, Sophie's employer will fetch her at nine on Tuesday from the local train station. And what day is it today, asks the employee. Saturday, says a startled Mrs. Lelièvre, who doesn't really notice anything wrong although she very well should.  

This scene, one of the very best opening vignettes you will ever see, foreshadows every detail to come. We may even generously interpret Sophie's listless looks over Catherine's shoulder as symbolizing her gaze at another character, one who hasn't been mentioned but who figures prominently in our story, and one who can also be symbolized by a letter since her work comprises the handling of others' written correspondence. That remarkable shrew is the local postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert). For my money, Huppert and Emily Watson are the world's two most talented actresses, but let us not digress. Catherine returns to her remote manor for a family dinner of moules-frites, without, it appears, the frites. The reactions towards Sophie's hiring are mixed: her recently teen son Gilles (Valentin Merlet) inquires as to her looks (Catherine, of course, "did not notice" anything except that "she wasn't awful"); her nineteen-year-old stepdaughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) wonders as many educated young people do about the wages and conditions of their imminent housekeeper; and her greybeard husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) just wants to eat his mussels, listen to Mozart, and hope it all works out for the best. One may consider this blended quartet a microcosm of upper-class interests – money and labor negotiations, hedonism, overidentification with the less fortunate owing, it is assumed, to guilt, and a Pollyanna-like aversion to conflict coupled with a longing for higher culture – or one may not. Since the confrontations that will arise pit the well-off against those who perform services for the selfsame elite, the most facile of readings will have something to do with the proletariat – but now we must really put a stop to this silliness and return to that train station.   

Somehow we know that when the nine o'clock Tuesday morning train arrives, Sophie won't be on it. We are so sure of this, in fact, that we search for the same intuition in Catherine, who seems to know it as well, although she cannot quite fathom why. Since we are still in that tenebrous age before cell phones, our brooding employer takes out a cigarette and puffs away furiously – that is, until she espies Sophie on the other side of the platform. Sophie, who is wearing exactly what she wore to the bistro, has taken an earlier train with the explanation that she did not want to be late, which may ultimately rank as the most plausible of her countless lies in La Cérémonie. As the two approach Catherine's car, they are accosted by Jeanne looking for a ride to work, and we should say something about this Jeanne. In and around town Jeanne Marcal is known for four things: her gaudy, Pippi Longstocking-like wardrobe; her snooping (in her profession that means rendering unto mail recipients what Caesar's taster used to render unto Caesar); her volunteering for the Church, although she has no evident spirituality and simply desires to help the poor; and her past tragedy, as she once upon a time was acquitted for the negligent death of her small daughter. The description of this dreadful event that she confesses to Sophie omits so much detail as to make us wonder what, if anything, she ever says is true. Everything she utters, be it whimsical, cruel, or objectively intelligent, is punctuated by the same myopic smile. Yet somehow we believe, if for but a moment, that it was society not Jeanne who killed her daughter. Society who made her an outcast and a single mother; society who let her dwell in a tiny apartment with an exposed oven; society that rushed to damn her before she could even muster a defense. Thus ten minutes into our film, we have been sufficiently introduced to the three female leads, all seated in one car and revving off in the same and yet very different directions. When Jeanne smiles at Sophie with that myopic smile, the latter looks perplexed as to why anyone would smile at her. Later, towards the middle of the film, Sophie will finally return the smile and our story assumes a very different tenor.

There is a poorly-kept secret in La Cérémonie that outrattles the other, less consequential skeletons surfacing one after another like zombies. The scene in which the truth is 'revealed' (any half-awake viewer would have reached the same conclusion well before this point) seems overwrought and melodramatic, but the grief and anger that ooze out foretell the wickedness of the tale's end. In more than one scene we see despair, white-man-in-China despair, an abyss of hopelessness that gapes like a leviathan. The secret soon becomes the justification for all of Sophie's passive-aggressive charades, although it should be said that her personality is so damaged to begin with that no excuse will suffice. I have said less about Jeanne, a creature from a very black lagoon, because what is said about her in the film is so clear yet so terrifying that we shudder to consider the fact that we probably all know people just like her. Cheeky, impish, prying, cheerfully mischievous in an effort to mask true malevolence, intelligent in that way unique to very smart people who have come to envy life and all its inhabitants, Jeanne skips around, gleefully pinching fruit from a vendor like some insolent street urchin. We find her so frightening precisely because she is mindfully incalculable. And what about Sophie? In one respect Sophie embodies the plight of the typical domestic servant, who may be likened in this instance to a piece of furniture: something you acquire, place in a comfortable spot, and only notice ever again when you start tripping over it. As for the darkness and the ceremony, well, we would probably be better off just going and helping the poor. Just like Jeanne.

Saturday
Oct182014

Merci pour le chocolat

Chocolate manufacturers have almost invariably suffered a cruel fate in literature and film, perhaps because they come to seem as petty and decadent as their precious wares. When fictional chocolate does have some kind of positive connotation, it usually veers down that extremely dubious path of catholicon and, if applicable, aphrodisiac as well. Let's set the matter straight: chocolate is but another drug. True, it may at times so stimulate the brain that some people frankly never recover. But like alcohol, nicotine, or anything else that one allows to shape's one mood and, in so doing, one's personality, chocolate is an excuse for those who need excuses and a pleasure for those whose lives may not have enough of it. Which brings us to this quiet little mystery

We begin with the strangely distant Marie-Claire Muller (Isabelle Huppert) exchanging vows with the just as strangely fatigued André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Why Polonski and Muller as the protagonists in a French film, albeit one set in this relatively multiethnic city? Are their names intentionally foreign-sounding? Our Muller is an heiress to a formidable chocolate business, which for some Europeans is as plain an accomplishment as her surname suggests. Polonski, on the other hand, while perhaps a reference to another director, is a highly regarded classical pianist. His is also a common name – in Poland, where the most famous of all French pianists was born – and so we again face the quandary, so prevalent in Chabrol, of societal conflict, of an invisible class struggle, of art and its eternity versus the immediate gratification of gold bullion. It is well known that another contemporary director likes to employ bourgeois couples called Anne and George, or variants thereof, upon whom he can inflict the vilest of fates. But what about Chabrol? "I declare you bound, re-bound, if I may be permitted to say, in marriage," says the justice of the peace. "Please exchange rings." "They're the same ones" says Marie-Claire, who goes by Mika, which may remind us not a little of Milka, a German chocolate – but I digress. Yes, Mika and Polonski were, once upon a time, wife and man, nineteen years ago to be exact. Just before, as it were, the pianist decided for reasons that will become painfully clear to us that Mika was not his soul’s mate, and opted to marry the lovely Lisbeth who would bear him his only child Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) then perish in a mysterious car accident on Guillaume’s tenth birthday. A flashback near the film’s midpoint clarifies the unusual sequence of occurrences that evening, even if what this character remembers is not what the official police report contains. What we do know, and what is reflected in that brief glimpse into a foggy and mysterious past, is that even after their brief marriage and divorce, Polonski and Mika remained so close that it was at Mika’s house that the family was staying at the time, and it was in Mika’s neighborhood that Lisbeth fell asleep at the wheel and skidded off into eternal rest. And it was also Mika who gave Lisbeth the titular cocoa laced with Rohypnol mere minutes before her fatal ride.

Revealing this detail here does not spoil our film, because the same information is made available to the viewer at a proportionally earlier point in Merci pour le chocolat. It seems safe to assume that Mika killed Lisbeth, whether or not she intended to do so. Our task is to determine why she took this course of action, and what, if anything, occupies the black abyss of what is left of her soul. Even in the opening scenes, when Mika listlessly humors guests at her wedding reception then, as if to make amends for such a betrayal, a well-attended public exhibition of Lisbeth’s photography, we sense that she has long since been shunted down a very different track. At the exhibition we move quickly from one photo that appears to be a close-up of thumbs depressing a neck, to Polonski trapped in some imbecilic harangue on politics, to Mika tuning out – there is no other expression – one of her oldest employees and a dear friend of her father’s. With little forewarning – people seem to be quite used to her permanent somnambulism – she walks away and touches someone on the back who appears to be Guillaume. With that touch, which befits a lover much more than a stepmother, we somehow have the premonition that it will not be Guillaume. When it turns out indeed to be Mika's stepson, it is remarkable to note how his perturbation indicates sexual prudishness. Yes, Guillaume has joined the rest of the world in finding something sensual about Isabelle Huppert, hardly a cause for either lamentation or praise. But within the context of the film, it suggests yet another complication that bobs its head upon the surface on account of the only person who sees Mika touch Guillaume at the exhibition, a beautiful eighteen-year-old by the name of Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis).

Jeanne we know from an earlier scene. In it, two very well-to-do middle-aged ladies Pauline (German actress Isolde Barth) and Louise Pollet meet in a posh restaurant where, one gets the impression, they no longer need to look at the menu. Apart from reveling in their poshness, they are also awaiting their teenage children, Jeanne and Axel, who are openly dating but “probably playing tennis right now” (the hint is clear, even to the mothers in denial). When the duo finally cruises in still perspiring from, well, their afternoon workout, Pauline is reminded of an announcement from today’s paper regarding the Muller-Polonski wedding. What happens next is so preposterous (Barth's pronounced accent in French imbues the whole scene with an urgent gravity, as if the foreign press were reporting a scandal) it could only be likely: apparently Jeanne, a budding young pianist, was born at the same hospital on the same day as Guillaume Polonski. Owing to a dearth in bracelets, only the first three letters of their surnames were written and – and here I admit to having laughed myself silly, and not only at the thought of a Swiss hospital lacking supplies. In any case, what we may say is that some doubts arise as to Jeanne's parentage, all the more so since her legal father has been dead for many years; Louise's shockingly defensive reaction – any self-assured parent would have mocked the whole notion – only serves to deepen Jeanne's and our suspicions. One thing leads to another and Jeanne shows up on the Polonskis' doorstep eager to meet the great master. In no small coincidence, she also happens to have a piano competition in Budapest in a couple of weeks and could benefit from as much private tutoring as possible. Polonski, of course, is in that regard all too happy to oblige. And although he makes a point of verbally dismissing Jeanne's paternity queries, his treatment of her indicates otherwise, perhaps because she reminds him of Lisbeth, whose gestures culled from photographs in Guillaume's room she begins to ape.

Not every secret that subtends Merci pour le chocolat is revealed, because life does not show all its cards, at least not all at once. We may think we know what took place that lonely night, but the versions we get cannot be considered in any way definitive. There are many delicate, observant moments that illuminate our cast in unpredictable ways: consider when Dutronc, a marvelously understated actor, thoroughly convinces Jeanne that he may believe her story, then turns to Guillaume and speaks exactly like a father who has no doubt about his offspring; when Mika goes to see Louise in her office for one of the tensest tea-drinking scenes in recent memory; or when a character turns off the lights in bed only to have a close-up reveal a face much more awake in the darkness than the light, as if the face and the brain behind it thrived in the shadows of human motives. A couple of details from the telltale flashback, details specifically concerning Guillaume, also imply what may have happened and what may yet occur. Yet as Polonski himself admits, Jeanne's distinct resemblance to Lisbeth has as much to do with the good memory it generates as with any biological probability. Almost anyone can resemble anyone else if a few key mannerisms are copied; the more eccentric the mannerisms available, the more convincing the understudy. And we haven't even mentioned what piece Jeanne will be playing in Budapest.

Monday
Mar242014

The Bridesmaid

It is said that you can cull the basic structure of a family's relationship from how parents compliment their children. Anyone can criticize you in a moment of weakness with or without justification; but flattery and other such niceties, especially when performed sincerely and in full belief of their declarations, take more of an effort. Complimenting a child too much, it is also thought, may retard the child's emotional growth insofar as he expects only good things to be said about him by everyone else, which as our world has shown us is not usually the case. Yet no praise whatsoever is equally pernicious for, I should hope, quite obvious reasons. What then is the middle road? For better or worse, I am fully convinced that children – at ten, twenty, or fifty – should be given an element of choice and praised when their decisions cost them more than a few blinks of contemplation. Opting not to bully a classmate should be, for a properly raised child, a rather simple affair; cheating when you know you can get away with it, however, is an entirely separate lesson. A child has an inherent moral structure that he senses he should follow (whether this structure was formally inculcated by a parent, teacher, or other older relative is not that important), and despite his squawks of innocence and efforts to recuse himself from decision-making, he understands much more than he would ever let on. When children become young men and women, they are faced with much more serious quandaries – where to work, who to call friends, who to call lovers, and what to think of their parents now that their opinions carry significantly more tonnage. Some people never leave this realm of childhood. They wallow instead in irresponsibility and innocence so stupendous it can only be labeled "below morality," although some of us prefer the term prelapsarian. They expect the hard things in life to be regulated by their progenitors, merely leaving them with the task of selecting their toys and food. And for the family Tardieu, the protagonists of this film, responsibility has long since given way to moral indolence.

The film opens as so many modern films do, with a newsreel about a terrible event: a twenty-one-year-old girl has gone missing from her home in Nantes. The reporter on the scene rattles off a few details before a young man sidles up to the set and promptly switches it off. That man is construction salesman Philippe Tardieu (Benoît Magimel), and turning a blind eye to the impurities of reality has come to be a habit. His younger sisters Sophie (the lovely Solène Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea) gape and stare in dismay, first at the horror of losing someone who dated a former schoolmate of theirs, then at Philippe's insistence that they prepare themselves for the arrival of their mother Christine (Aurore Clément). Christine is a widow, a soft touch and a doormat. Watching a game show where pure luck allows a woman to win "money for life," she whispers to Sophie that she couldn't be on that show because she wasn't raised to earn money that way. As a hairdresser, she has to listen to her obnoxious clients rave about better, cheaper salon stylists as well as provide house calls to some of the lazier among them. We are then hardly shocked that she is now attached to a despicable louse named Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq) whom she plans on introducing to her children, age twenty-six, twenty-three, and seventeen, that very night. 

As a symbolic gesture of her break with her past, she also intends on giving Gérard the bust of Flora (who Flora is supposed to be is never clarified, although it is said to resemble Christine), a gift from the children's late father to his beloved wife. The bust has sat in their garden for years on end, and the camera does not shy away from capturing Philippe's alarm at this loss. Soon, it will be the children assuming the role of the parent, asking the age, profession, and status of Gérard, as well as displaying overt skepticism towards the whole enterprise. But before this inevitability comes to pass, Christine parks her scooter, enters their house, and immediately all her attention falls to Philippe. "You are as beautiful as a star," she says, in a quote repeated at a much later point in the film. And her daughters? "You are as beautiful as angels," she coos. And it is clear: a radiant star, alone, as opposed to a heaven full of interchangeable angels, that is how Christine perceives her offspring. In no small coincidence, that is also precisely how they perceive themselves. The titular wedding is Sophie's, her betrothed Jacques being a "simple clerk at city hall" who also happens to volunteer for the fire department. Jacques is an homely fellow, especially considering his fiancée, but he cannot be faulted for being a bad Nantais. In a lesser film, the first scene would feature the bride either trying on her dress or actually minutes away from the ceremony, and her brother among the pews lost in some chain of neurotic thoughts until his eyes came upon one of the bridesmaids – the stock method of plot advancement. Yet Chabrol takes his time, placing all the pieces where they need to be and adjusting them more than once if necessary. By the time the wedding finally takes place we already have an excellent idea of Philippe's obsessive, brooding personality – exactly the type of person who would fall for the wrong woman. And there is, without a doubt, a wrong woman. 

As the wedding proceeds without incident, one bridesmaid catches Philippe's eye, although he might have instinctively been looking in that direction since his girlfriend of sorts was supposed to have been included. One gets the slippery feeling that Philippe's destiny can be solely imputed to his single-minded pursuit of order, lockstep regimen, and bourgeois financial success. He is not a bad person in the criminal sense; yet his ethics have atrophied enough that he cannot distinguish a good girl, one that might make him very happy and rid him of that silly bust he keeps gazing at then hiding like a dirty magazine, from a bad girl. Alas, he finds something far worse than that in Jacques's wayward cousin Senta (Laura Smet, the daughter of this actress and this famous singer). Her real name is Stephanie, although she changes it, Sophie informs us, every six months and cannot be bothered with the banal details of daily life like sewing on a blue flower to that prime example of conformity, her bridesmaid gown. She derives her exotic looks from an Icelandic mother who died at childbirth, a story straight-shooter Jacques readily confirms and one that puts Philippe's mind, so prone to conflict avoidance and blocking out any form of improbity, at ease. The wrong woman, however, has other plans. After eyeing him up throughout the brief and dull reception, she sits alone at the table of her cousins waiting for something to happen. The desired event occurs when she inexplicably turns up at his doorstep soaking wet and ready for any type of action his limbs might be able to handle. To justify her impetuousness, she confesses to being an actress (preferring acteur to the allegedly sexist actrice and comédienne, with the former referring to movie stars), and reminds him that Senta is the heroine's name in this famous opera. This and whatever else slips out of her mouth in the throes of passion or at any other time cannot be verified. 

Nor, for that matter, does Philippe have any immediate interest in discovering the truth. He doesn't really want to disbelieve anything she says; he wants, in fact, the most preposterous batch of lies possible because what he lacks in his life is imagination. She strings him along so shamelessly that he actually seems enthralled by her mountain of distortions, that everything she could be saying is probably rubbish, and by trying, quite passively, to detect what if any of the details of her life are genuine. We all know men like Philippe, men who lack imagination and always tell the truth, embarrassed about their few personal details that they don't want to make public, and anxious to believe others because it is through others that they experience the lies and fantasy that they do not dare to expound themselves. A nice twist intervenes when Philippe at long last calls Senta a bare-faced liar (he does it in the gentlest possible way: he suggests she write screenplays) to which she predictably writhes in indignation. From this point on, the twists are superseded by far less subtle plot devices that border on the ludicrous stuff we find in more commercial cinema. But Magimel is wonderful throughout, ever mumbling underneath his breath about some repressed emotion, seconds from bursting although he never really gives full vent to his feelings (after reluctantly handing over the bust, for example, he almost walks into Gérard as if he were sniffing him and about to bite him). There are far too many bright spots to be distracted by Senta's asinine existentialist theories and the incestuous fact that her last name, Bellange, is a homophone of "beautiful angel." Is that why, when Philippe is about to leave to a fateful dinner with Senta, he appears before his mother dressed to the nines and is offered the same compliment as before? This time he agrees, although he should be thinking of star-crossed lovers instead.

Tuesday
Oct162012

The Flower of Evil

Many years ago a friend of mine commented that she did not understand why anyone would read a book or see a film more than once; surely, she implied, we all have better things to do with our time.  That her literary and cinematic tastes differ greatly from mine might be an easy inference by regular readers of these pages, but the matter is more complex than it might seem.  We repeat activities that we enjoy, sometimes owing to the content of the activity, othertimes to the memory of the very first experience (some high-profile drugs apparently pertain to the second category).  Do we watch films for added information and perspective or simply to repeat a high like the reviewing of a wedding video?  Are we drawn in retrospect to films that supported our ideals at the time or the ideals that we have developed with age?  The question is indeed complex, because it skirts that rather nebulous pond as to why we read at all.  Modern critics will inevitably tie our reading habits to the indulgence of our worst neuroses (modern critics, it should be said, think little of us and less of themselves), and could not possibly imagine that certain people would want to edify themselves from the pure joys of artistic creation.  Nor could their jargon-addled brains ever describe what real artistic pleasure entails since they are bound by edicts thankfully unclear to us to reduce everything to some theory of social, sexual, or national gibberish.  We, however, have no such restrictions.  It is possible for us to watch and re-watch a film about a well-heeled but highly unorthodox family in southwest France and revel in the strangeness of its details.  Their life is unlike ours but needs no category, and the film in question is this unusual production.

We begin with the return from the United States of a prodigal son, François Vasseur (Benoît Magimel).  Apart from good looks, money, and the swagger that studying halfway around the world usually begets, François has a certain surliness to him that we also see in the person who picks him up from the airport, his louse of a father Gérard (played up rather filthily by Bernard Le Coq).  Gérard has no redeeming qualities about him.  He ensnares his son in petty arguments as soon as he arrives, talks up the town council campaign of his second wife, Anne (Nathalie Baye), with inappropriate sarcasm, and generally gives the impression of someone who only likes money, power and being right.  His grin indicates something more: he envies the youth of his son because his son's obvious attractiveness allows him countless opportunities with members of the opposite sex.  If he accomplishes nothing else in life – especially considering that most of life has already been accomplished for him – François is determined not to be like his father.  He may get along with his stepmother, but his real interest (and a typical attraction given the circumstances) is his stepsister Michèle (Mélanie Doutey).  Modern critics' pedestrian conclusions regarding the deep-seated need for such a relationship notwithstanding, its occurrence in real life is rather frequent for one very good reason: both participants know beforehand that it will never work out (some people purposely seek out married partners to afford themselves the same exit strategy).  That said, François and Michèle really, really like one another.  Their desires have certainly been abetted by François's prolonged absence, but they do not hide what they want to do to one another and what life would be like if they could just be left to their own devices.  And they never get the chance they want, or, I should say, as many chances as they want, because of that electoral campaign.

The campaign is for a spot on the council of a small town in Bordeaux, an uninspiring if quaint dominion for a woman who has everything.  Anne is undoubtedly that type of woman, and one gets the impression that the position replaces her need to buy fine clothes or dine out at expensive restaurants.  The fact that the town severely lacks both of these amenities makes her turn towards politics all the more likely.  Through Anne, who is elegant, pleasant, and pretty if self-absorbed in a harmless way,  we begin to perceive the outlines of a far graver concern than the lascivious misdeeds of the stepsiblings.  "Everything in this family is a secret" (said more than once) seems to be the motto of a home formed twenty years ago when Anne's husband and Gérard's wife were killed in the same car accident.  And so we are hardly surprised to learn that someone has been writing poison pen letters against Anne indicating that her family has a sullied history, a history that may have bottomed out during this regime.  Although she lets on that she knows who is behind the accusations, Anne proceeds undeterred in her ambition to govern, if that is the right word.  After all, shouldn't a politician, especially of a somewhat backwater locale, be representative of the rabble?  Wouldn't the modest dimensions of such power not suffice for someone accustomed to the finer things in life?  But Anne will not be denied.  Even when she visits low income housing and displays her utter lack of sympathy with and knowledge of the plight of the everyday, we understand that she and her reptilian campaign manager (Thomas Chabrol, the director's son) will stop at nothing to ensure her election.  She shakes a few hands, pets a few children reluctantly on the head, and tries to stay positive about her chances in a manner reminiscent of a shopper bent on getting what she wants even if it means rummaging through every shelf in every store.  This dominative drive does not ebb even in the face of Gérard's unabashed opposition – at which point we consider a rather hideous probability and then put the matter aside as the streams of thought convene into a large pool.  The only question is whether we actually have the intestinal fortitude to look down to the bottom of that pool for old bones.

The critical reception of La Fleur du Mal was decidedly mixed, perhaps owing to a couple of contrivances that surface in the film's final scenes.  Its subtleties more than make up for its plot twists, and there is a sense of justice in the personal choices a couple of the characters make in the end.  Chabrol has directed better and more profound pieces, but few that contain all the elements of a thriller and yet slip into a literary study from a series of perspectives.  The titular reference to this French poet might have to do with the nature of the crimes committed, or simply with a cynical and apprehensive view of humanity in general.   I have also intentionally refrained from mentioning one last character who plays a valuable role in our realization of the truth, even though an attentive viewer might guess the truth early on.  And given the weird clusters of details about  this family, the truth may seem rather banal.

Saturday
Jan262008

The Color of Lies

Rare is it that a translated title outdoes the original: director Claude Chabrol released this film as Au coeur du mensonge, "at the heart of the lie," which has a similar if more idiomatic flavor in French. More importantly, the English version suggests that more than one party may be lying, or, as is generally the case with liars, that deceit pervades every aspect of their existence.  We modern beasts like to smear the term "pathological liar" on the untrusted as if such a label weren't redundant. But lying really is a habit and not an exception. Throughout the annals of history, it has remained the easiest and laziest way for us to improve aspects of our lives and dreams.
 

The film is set in this coastal region of France famed for many things, including the shibboleths of the natives. Outsiders and settlers should plan on keeping those credentials for their entire stay. Such is the fate of  René Sterne (Jacques Gamblin), a crippled teacher of drawing, and his wife Vivienne (the always remarkable Sandrine Bonnaire), a nurse whose persistent good humor is as much a product of lifelong study as René's art. They are being watched by a newly promoted police inspector (Valeria Bruni–Tedeschi, soon to become the sister–in–law of this world leader), not only because they, like she, do not belong in this provincial community. A horrible crime (quickly featured in the opening minutes) has also been committed and René, who imparted to the young girl his knowledge of drawing once a week, just so happens to be the last person to have seen the victim alive. 

Regardless of these circumstances, it seems a bit ridiculous to suspect René at all; without his cane and the patience of his wife he would be little more than a wheelchaired invalid. Yet his soul, now almost completely resigned to its dreary end as a failed artist, has little room for mercy or pity, and the subject of its loathing could not be more perfectly represented than by Germain–Roland Desmot (Antoine de Caunes), an overhyped and talentless celebrity writer. Chabrol wisely does not grant us the mildest opportunity of sympathizing with Desmot, because Desmot is a caricature who deserves nothing but contempt. He is foul to his ex–wife on the phone, negligent of their child, arrogant and condescending to the locals, whom he sees as barely evolved past the shellfish they harvest, and lascivious towards the few pretty women in his vicinity. Worst of all, he stands for and believes in nothing except this degradation of the lives of others. Perhaps there is no Tolstoyan truth to be found among these simple folk, but Desmot (whose name is a homophone of "words") has nothing but lies to offer the world both in his books and speech.

Yes, Desmot is more involved than initially suspected, although this admission gives nothing away. What is more relevant are the immediate models for Chabrol's morality tale of the artist against the non–artist (a crystal–clear stratagem), and how unclear the morals in question actually are. There is another tale of, at once, supreme moral justice and moral ambiguity, and the antagonists in that story are an older man by the name of Chillingworth and a young priest called Dimmesdale. Vivienne makes a lovely Hester, both a sinner and readily sinned against and despised. And it is hard to live in truth if the only things people believe about you are all lies.